The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf
“To become oneself,” Christa Wolf writes in The Quest for Christa T. “... with all one’s strength. Difficult. A bomb, a speech, a rifle shot—and the world can look like a different place, and then where is this self?”
Christa T. is a fictionalized character in Wolf’s novella The Quest for Christa T. but, as such, she is also the author's mirroring alter-self defiantly challenging and mourning her post-Hitler Germany, a place where the Stasi's Communism replaced Nazism, offering nothing but another oppressive tyranny of State vs. the individual. Living loudly and unashamedly in open rebellion, the character, Christa T. is presented as both an enigma and heroine against the political extremes and history of a divided, half-destroyed post-World War II Germany. The author stands as witness to this great shift in history, from Nazism to a Communist dictatorship – the world changing into a different place after “a bomb, a speech and a rifle shot” – and Wolf’s alter-self, the fictional Christa T., embodies the question: “...then where is the self?”
Christa Wolf was born in Landsberg an der Warthe in Brandenburg. Her childhood was suffered under Nazism and her adulthood under Communism. She was, as one critic put it, "a writer of scrupulous 'touchstone' honesty, and it is the pursuit and uncovering of truth, under the most beleaguered circumstances, that defines her.”
In 1992, Wolf was accused by Western journalists and intellectuals of being a collaborator and informant for the Stasi – inoffizieller Mitarbeiter. However, it is clear that Wolf was not guilty of collaborating, that she gave no information to the Stasi; indeed, was dropped by the Stasi for “reticence", but became the subject of their surveillance for 30 years. The fierce attacks from "stone-throwing West Germans" (as her translator, Michael Hofmann, called them) drove her into a depression. She refused to exonerate herself. Instead she started writing The Quest for Christa T., Hofmann contends, “as a continuation of her life's work of intense self-interrogation and reflection, in which one must ‘execute the verdict oneself’.”
I felt that urgency in reconsidering this novella, certainly Wolf’s most controversial work, and one that is as rich in philosophical and literary questions as it is in language and in-depth characterizations. It seemed, also, to fit into difficulties I was having in defining the slippery meanings of “modernism”, where Wolf falls into a post-modern era, while carrying many of the earlier modernist visions and literary ideas into her work. Wolf was decidedly more concerned with the ineffable and enigmatic processes of consciousness, the questioning self adrift in the waves of merging identities, as her predecessor, Virginia Woolf was. The ways in which one’s reach towards empathy and connection with the outside world spirals inward and eventually becomes an inquiry into writing and literature as truth or artifice is important to the work. Wolf, like the modernists, also asks if capturing or knowing anyone is even possible. That is, her unease with certitude and absolutes seemed to be rooted in the fertile ground that European modernism once offered.
In many ways, for Christa Wolf, as for Virginia Woolf, writing and groping for defining visions through writing were the very instruments and means that would form a self against the turbulent tides of oppression from the “society”, and, later, with the rise of Communism, the “State”. Writing, rather than being an artifice, was, in the end, for Woolfe and Wolf, the very form of truth and life itself. Or as Harold Bloom once noted in The Anatomy of Influence, “literature is a way of life... any distinction between literature and life is misleading. Literature is not merely the best part of life; it is itself the form of life which has no other form.”
In opening the story, Christa Wolf informs us quickly that Christa T. is ultimately ungraspable except for in fleeting moments, and in a kind of symbiotic author/character duality, where the author and her character merge into one another.
“Mightn’t the net that has been woven and set for her finally turn out to be incapable of catching her? The sentences I have written, yes. Also the ways she traveled, a room she has lived in, or a landscape that is near and dear to her, a house even a feeling—but not herself. Even if I could do it, faithfully present everything about her that I’ve known or experienced, even then it's conceivable that the person to whom I tell the story whom I need and whose support I solicit might finally know nothing about her. As good as nothing unless I contrive to say the most important thing about her, which is this Christa T., had a vision of herself... no one doesn’t invent a person's visions, though sometimes one can find them.”
What makes Wolf’s work different than her predecessors, is that question of a self in history, and how that “self” confronts the oppressive political dictatorships of our own times. Though there are other modernist ideas Wolf embraces, she supplements them with a sense of a new helplessness in our post World War II world order.
In a quite beautiful poem Wolf describes how the tyranny of regimes, Nazism and Communism, bring her, as writer, to these new conclusive aesthetics and guideposts:
Across the green and clean cool of the sky
Still shoot these arc and loops the swallow dares
From every house a wave of radiance breaks
And a black turmoil fills the thoroughfares
I stand and want to sing a song to myself.
The breeze brings fragrance from the lime tree blooms
How pleasant it would be to spend the whole night here
I climb downstairs to dark cemetery rooms
The writer's responsibility to develop for a personal truth to pit against the political landscape has become urgent, desperate. Although superficially a political and moral novel, The Quest for Christa T. is close to the concepts of modernism, perhaps placing those concepts into a contemporary world, which will include the State vs. the individual.
We are first introduced to Christa T. through the perceptions of a younger Wolf. “Then she began to blow or shout,” Wolf writes, “there’s no proper word for it... there she was walking along in front, talking, head in air along the curb and suddenly she put a rolled newspaper to her mouth and let go with her shout HOOOHAAHOOO — something like that. She blew her trumpet and the off-duty sergeants and corporal of the local defense corps stopped and stared and shook her heads at her. Well she’s cuckoo, that’s for sure (they thought). Now you see what she can be like, one of the others girls said to me.”
But Christa Wolf had already been seduced, not so much by the real person Christa T. but by the idea of Christa T., all that Christa T. stands up for and against: “Rapidly and regardlessly I had broken all other threads” Wolf tells us, “Suddenly I felt the terror that you'll come to a bad end if you suppress all the shouts prematurely; I had no time to lose; I wanted to share in a life that produced such shouts as her hooohaahooo.”
As Christa T. grows from the young child to the teacher, and to a woman purposively estranged from the regime by her rebellious nature, Wolf tells us people found Christa T. increasingly unstable with "no sense of reality". Correcting this misperception, Wolf tells us Christa T. simply could not manage money, questioned "everybody" and was “hungering for reality... she (Christa T.) sat in the seminars, insatiable for what professors might say about books, saw the poets of past time sink in serried ranks back into the graves, since they won’t be adequate... For it was only Christa T. who could be assailed by feelings of love and reticence, who pulled them out again when evening came and she stayed in the seminar library alone.”
We follow Wolf as she navigates the resistance her mirror self, Christa T. offers as a liberating vicarious journey for the author and reader. Brave and reckless as she is, Christa T. keeps triumphing through writing, even her diary scraps are pieces of her threatened selfhood held and put back together, and they restore her alter self, Wolf, to hope and meaning.
“And then a word came up,” Wolf tells us towards the end of the novella, “as if newly invented: truth We kept repeating it: truth, truth, truth, and believed the word was closely more than ever our concern, as if it were some animal with small eyes which lives in the dark and is timid but which one can surprise and catch to possess it for the first time... Writing means making things large. Thus her (Christa T.’s) deep and persistent wish guarantees the secret existence of her work: this long and never-ending journey towards oneself."
After Christa T.’s death, Wolf is faced with countless pages of Christa T's writing, poems, stories, and personal bits “preserved in a grayish spring back folder with a green calf spine stored with hundreds of other theses the decades have deposited, and only the dry dust of the institute shows any interest in.”
During the expulsion of many Germans to a life behind the Iron Curtain under the Stasi dictatorship, “When everything depended on one's getting away with a little light luggage,“ Wolf tells us, “Christa T. kept a small notebook... and on the cover in her childish scrawl: I would like to write poems and I like stories too.”
“To stand obscure among other obscurities while the fires are blazing,” Wolf writes, letting us know again that The Quest for Christa T. is as much about how the process of writing itself is a survival means by which the authentic "self” can find itself again in the "blazing fire" caused by drastic, severe, and external political changes in one's personal world.
For Wolf, like the author Clarice Lispector, the writer was meant to intrude on the text, assert their mirroring inner selves with their characters, but not to direct and provide objective editorial distance but to dissolve the boundaries between writer/reader/character. The writer's task is to tangle all three up inescapably and show empathy as a reflecting mirror and the essential task of literature. Like Clarice Lispector’s Macabea, in The Hour of the Star, Christa Wolf’s Christa T. will self-destruct, vanish from our reach, but before she dies, she will present us and the author one of the almost unbearable question of existence: how does one find that authentic but fluid "self" sent adrift by sudden shifts of outside forces, (“a bomb, a speech, or a rifle shot”)? What is the responsibility of literature to answer this question and be a means and tool for our search? How, finally, is our search really a search for our own self?
I can think of no other who captures the threat of losing ourselves in a fluid drastically labile world, regimes mirroring each other -- Fascism, Communism, and elements of a pervasive Western Capitalism. Wolf asks us to confront the potential loss of personal self in the tumult of this new world order. Without our personal writing and a literature of searching questions, Wolf tells us there is only “the abiding sense of the abyss that yawns before us, the fear of a future with no countering vision, a world with nothing but the military-industrial complex to guide our dreams.” Wolf asks at some point in the novel. What if writing is the only way to find and define our self? Is writing incurable?
The Quest for Christa T., in the end, is about a personal silent battle and collision of the individual with the damning gears of a corrupted collectivism, a perversion of community and authentic human desires and voices.
Christa Wolf was an important writer, among few who continued a modernist literary tradition, exploring and then expanding the tradition to encompass the Cold War tensions of State and dictatorship. Perhaps, like Christa T, Wolf and her work “needs to be protected again oblivion”, as she writes in this masterpiece, "she really might have died, yes almost. But she mustn’t leave us. This is the time at which to think about her, to think her further, to let her live and grow older as other people do…useless to pretend its for her sake... no: the compulsion to make her stand and be recognized is our own... Because it seems we need her.”